New Year, Old Me: Five Things I’m Going to Keep Doing in 2014

528599_10151161854801787_1430087781_nIt’s that time of the year when every website, magazine, and Twitter feed is selling January 1st-dated potential. Headlines like “New Year, New You” or “Ten Ways to Lose Weight/Get Rich/Find Love/Be the Best Person Ever in 2014”. And, hey, if that kind of inspiration works for you, more power to you. Go with it. May 2014 be your best year ever.

The only thing is, New Years Day, and the companion resolution-making process, has never been all that exciting to me. If anything, it’s always a little depressing. I have made resolutions but, truth be told, I’ve never really felt all that motivated to keep them. I used to think that was a character flaw. Now I just think that maybe resolutions tied to the date of January 1st just aren’t right for me.

I grew up in the South surrounded by Southern Baptist and Assemblies of God and other churches that emphasized the need for having some sort of big religious experience where you turned your life immediately over to God. The only thing is, that never happened to me. My extended family was mostly Catholic and Presbyterian, and those aren’t exactly the sort of traditions where blinding light conversion stories take center stage.

Instead my coming to faith, like most things in my life, was a gradual process. I didn’t become a Christian by “making a decision for Christ”. I became one because gradually I was drawn by the story of Christ and I wanted to live my life following him. I can’t tell you the date that happened, but I’m pretty sure it wasn’t January 1st. It wasn’t any one day.

Really, no significant change has ever happened in my life because I have set a date for it to happen. I fell in love gradually and unexpectedly. I got sober because gradually I realized I had to do it. And one day in college I decided to trade my law school applications in for seminary ones, not because that day was special, but because it had just come to the point that I knew that was what I needed to do.

The thing about God’s grace, and the changes that it causes us to make, is that it rarely comes on our own schedules, and my guess is that it even less rarely comes on a date that has rather arbitrarily, at this place and this time in the whole of history, come to be the start of a new year. So my guess is that if something big happens in my life this year, it will come because of God’s grace, and it will come on some random unexpected time, and maybe all at once, or maybe little by slow.

So, this year I’m not making resolutions. I’ve decided I don’t want a “new year, new me”. Really, it’s taken a lifetime to get to this “me”, and I’m pretty happy with who I am, and all the little graces that have made me me. My hope is next year at this time I’ll be pretty happy to be me too.

So, instead of making New Year’s resolutions, I’m going to do something different. I’m going to list five things that I randomly started doing at some point this year that I’ve decided to keep doing. They’ve made my year better. My only hope is that 2014 will add to this list. Either way, I think it’s going to be a good year. Here they are:

1. Writing more notes and cards with my favorite pen. I’ve used fountain pens for years. I have this one that’s not a big, expensive, fancy one. It’s just a solid, black, medium nibbed fountain pen that feels heavy in my hand and puts ink down perfectly on paper. I’ve used it a lot this year. I’ve written more cards and notes to people I care about, and while I hope they have brought them joy, I have to admit that writing them has probably brought just as much joy to me. I’m going to do more of that this year.

2. Reading less theology and church leadership books, and more fiction. I have a college degree in religion, a Master of Divinity, and a second masters in systematic theology, along with half a PhD in theology and psychology. I’ve read a lot of theology, and a lot of church leadership books. This year I stopped doing that. I switched to fiction. I read “Great Expectations”. I re-read “Dubliners”. I kept a pile of the novels I had always wanted to read on my bedside table. And, honestly? I think I’m a better pastor for it. Plus, I don’t feel guilty for not reading every new church book that comes along. A win all the way around.

3. Letting fewer people live in my head rent-free. There’s an old recovery saying: Don’t let people live in your head rent-free. In other words, the world is filled with people who can’t stand the success of others, can’t control their temper, can’t see past prejudices, or can’t be positive. We still have to love them, but we don’t have to let their toxicity get into our head. Those folks don’t deserve energy you could be better spending on others. This year I learned a lot about how to not attend every argument to which I’m invited. Sometimes walking away, saying a prayer for the other, and then shaking the dust from your feet, is the most grace-filled and Christian thing one can do. I highly recommend it.

4. Valuing what I produce over the amount of time spent working. My first year pastoring I worked an unsustainable amount of hours. Sometimes ten hours a day without a day off. I got a lot done, but I still went to bed each night with a hefty to-do list. I’ve been gradually changing my work/life balance over the past few years. Now I take my sabbath day fully, turn off the phone for dinner with my wife, and go to bed at a decent hour. Now I work significantly fewer hours but, surprisingly, I’ve found I’m able to get more done. Even better, I’ve found that the quality of what I do, from sermons to pastoral care to writing, has gotten better. It’s been a great change.

5. Reading Scripture: Like many pastors, I have at times found myself getting away from the very spiritual practices that first drew me to consider ministry. With a busy schedule prayer time has felt like a luxury. Or, retreats have felt too inconvenient. One thing that had been getting away from me was Scripture reading. This year I changed that by making a commitment to read three chapters of Scripture a day; for me, a very manageable amount. And as I’ve re-introduced myself to Scripture, I’ve found myself falling in love with that complex, beautiful, and sometimes baffling collection all over again. It has deepened my faith walk, and it’s a habit I’m glad I developed this year.

So, those are my five. What are yours? How will the “old you” make 2014 even better?

What Growing Up a “None” Taught Me about Church

I was raised a “none”. That is, I was raised outside of organized religion, in a spiritual-but-not-religious home. I hear that “nones” are all the rage now, so I just want to point out for the record that for once in my life I was ahead of the fashionable curve.

I obviously did not stay a “none”. I’m a pastor in the United Church of Christ and I try, for better or worse, to live my life according to the teachings of Jesus Christ. I am a Christian, not because I was told by family that I needed to be one, but because the faith spoke to me in a way nothing else did.

In seminary I was aware of the uniqueness of my situation. Almost all of my classmates had been raised in the church, and most in the denomination of the seminary. A good number had been raised in the homes of clergy parents. They had grown up going to the same church camps, and knew the same people. I certainly never felt unwelcome because I hadn’t, but I was frequently aware of how radically different my journey to faith had been.

But in the last few years, I’ve seen a lot of questions from Christian clergy about how we can reach out to the growing number of “nones” out there. Christians are baffled as to how the church should speak to this alien group. They confuse us. They challenge us. And, if we are really honest, their very existence threatens our sense of security.

That’s not such a bad thing, honestly. We could use the shaking up. But as a former “none” who is watching this, I wanted to offer some insights. These are the top five things I learned from being a “none”:

1. 29671_389906276786_3698836_nBeing a “none” is not always a bad thing.

Truly. People come to faith from a variety of different places. For some that starts on the cradle roll at church, right after their parents bring their infant selves to the baptismal font. But for others of us, we arrive at the church via a different route. We explore other options, not because we are consumers, but because we want to find the place to which we are truly called.

The result is that converts often come to church full of commitment, resolve, and excitement. They also come with different perspective, and without assumptions about how the church should and should not work in the world. Sometimes new Christians can bring fresh ideas to the church. (Just ask St. Augustine, or former Archbishop of Canterbury George Cary, both of whom became Christians at a later age.)

2. “Nones’ are not Godless heathens.

I attended a church conference at a large United Methodist congregation earlier this year and I was shocked to hear a speaker refer to non-Christians as “essentially heathens”. I’ve since heard that word used by others who seem to believe Christian faith is simply a battle for converts. I’m not sure how the “heathens” are supposed to respond positively to that rhetoric.

The reality is that “nones” are not heathens. They are often extremely thoughtful, highly ethical, people who have not yet connected with an organized faith that speaks to them. When I first came to the church at age 17, I already knew I believed in God. I just wasn’t so sure I believe in church. Had someone insinuated that I was a “heathen” because I didn’t possess the same baptismal certificate as my classmates, I likely would have walked out the door.

3. “Nones” aren’t (necessarily) looking for a big conversion experience.

I never had that mountain-top moment that revival preachers always say they had. I never fell to my knees crying. I never had a moment of sudden, clear belief. There was never an altar call. And that’s okay. I didn’t need becoming a Christian to be a melodramatic moment. Instead, I felt a small urging in my soul that called to me to take the next step, to keep asking the questions, and to keep exploring. Conversion was a gradual, and thoughtful experience.

It also was, and is, continuous. Conversion is not a moment. It’s a lifelong process. While there may be moments that a Christian makes a deeper commitment, there are also countless moments of doubt, and of questioning, and of disconnection. These are not crises, but rather markers on the journey. But continual conversion means that a “none”, like any other Christian, ultimately is called to  continue down the path of faith.

4. Churches need to check assumptions about common knowledge.

When I first began attending church at age 17, I was highly embarrassed by the fact I didn’t know the Lord’s Prayer. I remember reading it over and over again to myself, trying to memorize it. (Add to that the fact that not all Christians say it the same way, and I was highly confused.)

Recently I heard someone complaining about visitors to their church that didn’t even know the Lord’s Prayer. She went on and on about how anyone could grow up not knowing the Lord’s Prayer. I felt those old feelings of embarrassment. And so I went home and started printing all the words to the Lord’s Prayer in my own church’s worship bulletin.

“Nones” might not know all the right prayers, or when to sit down and stand up. And, believe me, they are conscious of not knowing. So we who are familiar with the language of church have to be careful that we are not making assumptions about shared language. Explain what might seem foreign. Talk about why you do certain things. You may find that even some lifelong Christians benefit from this.

5. Don’t dumb it down or make it easy.

When I started looking for my faith community there were a lot of options. My town offered plenty of churches that wanted converts, and that handed out pamphlets about becoming a Christian and “making a decision” for Christ. They said it was so easy. Just accept Christ into your heart, and everything else would make sense.

I never went to any of those churches. Instead I went to the places that didn’t try to make it easy. I found the ones that didn’t dumb it down. I didn’t want answers or to be entertained. I wanted to wrestle with the big questions. I wanted to worship in authentic community. I wanted to make the hard choices that faith demands. I wanted to follow Jesus. And I wanted a church that would show me how to do that.

And, at the end of the day, I think a lot of “nones” might like that too.